Over the course of the next year as President Obama’s second term comes to an end, we’re likely to see a lot of columns like the one Paul Waldman wrote today titled: The Extraordinarily Complicated Successes of President Obama. But Waldman’s stands out because he was able to refer back to four great tasks he had outlined for the new president back in 2008 and evaluate how Obama has performed.
“If he sees the country through the current economic crisis, brings the war in Iraq to an end, passes health-care reform that actually achieves something close to universal coverage, and sets the country on a course away from a reliance on fossil fuels, Obama would be considered the most important president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
Waldman notes that, “to varying degrees, he has done all four,” but that “each victory has come with extraordinary complications.” That reminded me of one of my favorite videos of President Obama. It took place back in 2011 when the President paid a surprise visit to a bipartisan group of students at Tech Boston Academy.
Basically what Obama told them is that political victories in a democracy come with extraordinary complications. His example was the Emancipation Proclamation, which allowed the evil of slavery to continue in some parts of the country because President Lincoln prioritized maintaining the union. This is quintessential Obama:
The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means that you don’t get 100% of what you want.
That’s what the President meant when he explained his goals this way to Marc Maron:
The trajectory of progress comes in fits and starts and where you’re going is balanced by what is and where you’ve been. Progress in a democracy is never instantaneous and it’s always partial…
It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies – especially democracies – work.
And here’s how he talked about it with David Remnick:
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Are there victories in politics that don’t come with extraordinary complications? Perhaps. But if so, they are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time “we just try to get our paragraph right,” celebrate the partial victories and move on to the next challenge.